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Movie Review: Po

Rational parenting of an autistic child is the topic of director John Asher’s Po, which is currently seeking a distribution deal. The movie, starring Julian Feder as the autistic boy known as Po, Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty) as his widower father, and Kaitlin Doubleday (Rhonda on Fox’s Empire) as a teacher for autistic kids, gets better and stronger in the second half and it’s made more convincing and complete by the musical score. Colin Goldman wrote the script based on his story with Steve C. Roberts.

Po’s tale hinges on the lessons of widowed parenting. The autism comes into the picture prominently from the start, with young Po struggling at school, where he’s being both mainstreamed and bullied, not to mention overlooked by school officials. Though his Prius-driving, engineer father overcompensates, the mystery of Po is not just what’s driving the boy into his own world but what’s driving his dad’s fear and anxiety.

PoPoster2016With a demanding work project and his job on the line, government child welfare on his back, a wife lost to cancer (which isn’t immediately clear), a kid that colors in mustard on the walls and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” as a sensory immersion, Po piles a lot on Dad’s plate. This is undoubtedly part of Po‘s point. Some of it drags, doesn’t add up—a ponytailed boss and a British accented character are badly cast—and takes too long or needs editing. But when Po faces the prospect of danger or life in a home for “special needs” kids, his plight and his father’s dilemma come into sharp focus.

The demands of an autistic child are also on full display, thanks to a fine performance by Feder, who is not autistic. Like The Boy Who Could Fly, Silent Fall, Radio Flyer and other remote boy-themed movies, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Po gets into the child’s world and examines reality partly from his distorted or skewed perspective. By the time Doubleday’s blonde autism instructor shows up, it is clear that the father-son bond is taking a beating and the audience wants to know why. Po discovers a friend at school. Meanwhile, his dad discovers the prospect of a hybrid airplane. They spend quality time together with flight as a theme, building and flying model airplanes while the father worries about losing his job and his employer-provided health plan.

At a certain point, Po, who draws pictures of rocket ships, activates his vivid imagination, including a visit by an adult stranger and Po’s solo dance to Generation X with Billy Idol’s New Wave anthem “Dancing With Myself”.

It’s about joy, confidence and loving yourself, Po tells the stranger as he happily hops around to the song, so it’s clear that the son’s intelligence is not in dispute. But his connection to reality is slipping as his dad struggles to keep pace with work, school and parenting an autistic kid. This while he’s being pounded or taunted at school, missing his dead mother and telling his father not to be afraid.

The plot thickens around the notion of departure and, more compelling in the second half, Po keeps the audience guessing with a surprise, suspense and a gentle lesson in doing what’s best for the child, which might not be exactly what you think. Gorham, Feder and Doubleday are fine and the movie unfolds briskly in the second half, aided and masterfully scored by Burt Bacharach, including a new song he wrote which was recorded for the film by Sheryl Crow, “Dancing With Your Shadow”. The legendary songwriter’s score, sparingly rendered with perfection, casts a glow over Po.


The Laemmle Music Hall theater screening included an interview with director John Asher and composer Burt Bacharach (“Close to You,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Say A Little Prayer”) the great composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist and singer.

Discussing how he and Po‘s song lyricist Billy Mann (“Dancing With Your Shadow”) have an existing connection to autism, director Asher told the tale of his serendipitous commercial airline flight meeting with Bacharach, whom Asher said he didn’t recognize, let alone know about Bacharach’s own tragic link to autistic parenting. His daughter with his former wife Angie Dickinson, Nikki, had Asperger’s, he said, and had been so traumatized by the treatments and ordeal that she eventually committed suicide as an adult. When presented with the opportunity, Bacharach, who said he’d first watched Po without music in a hotel in New Zealand, said he knew that “I could score this with love.”

John Asher, who told the admiring screening audience that he had learned from Bacharach the meaning of musical terms such as resolve and dissonance, explained that Bacharach had the film for two months.

Bacharach told the audience that he is “very proud” of his work for Po and that he seeks to “raise awareness” about autism, which he said he wants to eradicate. He added that he was careful and meticulous with the score, telling Asher that one scene needed no music. When I asked if there’s a moment in Po that he regards as a perfect alignment of movie and music, Bacharach said that’s difficult to say. Later, he cited What’s New Pussycat (1965) as an example of such an alignment because he said he’d found the Peter O’Toole character to be sort of “weird and jagged” which, in turn, inspired that sense in the title song he composed for Tom Jones.

The young child actor who plays Po in the film, Julian Feder, also appeared and, when I asked about his preparation for the role, said he watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man “many times”. But it was Grammy and Oscar-winning Burt Bacharach, whose legacy of popular hits and timeless compositions, many with lyricist and frequent collaborator Hal David, who made the screening memorable. John Asher told everyone that he sought to make a “positive and uplifting” film about parenting an autistic child. With Po, and with help from the parent of an autistic child before such a term was known and more deeply understood, Burt Bacharach, who scores the picture with unmistakable tenderness, I think he succeeds.

 

Movie Review: La La Land

Has writer and director Damien Chazelle made new magic following his outstanding feature film debut, Whiplash?

LaLaLandPosterYes, and he does so with depth and delight in a fusion of cities, methods and styles. La La Land, apparently in development for ten years, is both experimental and expressionistic, and it is not a musical as that term applies to classic movies. Also, Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March, The Notebook) as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone (Birdman, Aloha) as an actress, reuniting after Crazy, Stupid, Love, can’t be compared to classic movie stars. As with 2012’s memorably romantic The Artist, which La La Land resembles, it’s best to see, hear and take La La Land as it is.

Opening on the interchange of two of the oldest and newest freeways in Los Angeles, the film’s infused with youthful expression. Riding bikes, doing urban acrobatics, gymnastics and exuberant dancing on cars, lanes and guard rails, La La Land begins with singles getting out of cars to dance. It’s winter in the city of angels and the fantasy sets the movie’s tone as two young strangers have an LA encounter.

Depicting Los Angeles as the world’s vital center for artists and entrepreneurs, Chazelle introduces Stone’s actress in an extended musical sequence involving homage, deflation and the ideal. But he gives the first serious dialogue to Gosling’s musician. Pouring a cup of coffee and playing a vinyl record on the Columbia label, the artist struggles and creates. Amid solid, primary colors, piano playing slips Gosling’s Sebastian into another encounter with Stone’s Mia. The two meet after he’s fired by J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).

In long, sweeping widescreen shots, La La Land lets the two leads sing, dance and glide through auditions, deals, gigs and performances and, of course, newly discovered romance. Tracking the duet in four seasons, Chazelle deliberately spins every reason to hate, doubt or envy this beautiful metropolis into reality-based fanfare. Traffic jams, lone drivers everywhere you look, constant warmth and sunshine; Chazelle depicts everything you’ve heard that outsiders hate about LA as a catalyst for what and whom to love.

La La Land comes with realism. This film is not escapism, despite those minimizing it as such. In fact, what’s most distinctive about this picture is its blended, balanced sense of a whole life, specifically, the whole life of one who creates. Chazelle delves into how hard it is to create; how it’s lonely, stressful and agonizing, including why it costs and why the artist’s life is going to be to some degree cruel, not kind. Like the title, La La Land imports what haters regard as artificial about LA and strips it bare, showing that it’s where the artist creates work that adds value, power and life.

This is what matters in La La land, as detractors dubbed Los Angeles long ago, where the city stokes the virtue of productiveness and the productive enlighten the city. Those who envision, create and pursue goals, from Walt Disney to Damien Chazelle, dream, live, love, fail and refocus, as the movie’s turning point demonstrates when a first date to see Rebel Without a Cause (with its climactic scene at Griffith Park Observatory) at an old movie theater sparks an idea to realize the ideal. Springtime comes and goes, with more auditions, an awakening, more money to make and business to do, a classic convertible and a summertime montage of outings in LA. Slowly, songs get jazzier, people get heavier and more relaxed, and drink goes from wine to beer. Singer John Legend makes an entrance (and major movie debut) as a voice of realism and futurism, if not exactly egoism.

That this crucial mid-point comes with a band called The Messengers speaks to La La Land‘s sole deficiency. As an audio and visual feast, it is too pronounced in certain respects and, yet, Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are muted. Don’t take this to mean that they are not good songs. They fit the context, tone and mood. But they make the audience more aware of the movie than the moment. Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul elevate the tunes and the movie. So do Mandy Moore’s choreography, costumes by Mary Zophres and Linus Sandgren’s photography. Again, do not expect the caliber of an MGM musical in look, song and dance.

As Mia and Sebastian strive to bring out the best in themselves, autumn casts change in their LA story. With important references to and scenes in Boulder City, Paris and Boise, each loaded with meaning, the music stops, an alarm sounds and someone storms out in the volatility of hard earned magic, love and life. Failure, rejection and regret are depicted with nods, symbols and cues to classic film points, from umbrellas to The Band Wagon. Los Angeles is essentialized and matched to its organic art of storytelling, and heartbreak, in multicolored tablecloths, downtown LA’s Angels Flight and Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont.

When someone says, “This is home” it isn’t long before someone else says, “You’re a storyteller.” La La Land dramatizes in color, music and dance what knowing, understanding and bridging these two statements means.

Pasting a singularly eye-popping segment involving Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do) in a small but critical role, a silhouette and a reference to The Red Balloon, La La Land exits with one long, last take toasting the visionary who is both rebel and romantic. It’s a hymn to Los Angeles (and its cousin, Paris), celebrating with lightness and seriousness that LA is where idealists make what’s ideal become something meaningful and real.

Movie Analysis: Oklahoma! (1955)

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” This line begins one of the greatest movies ever made, Oklahoma! (1955). Its original format was an ambitious and bold Broadway musical—itself an adaptation of a play by an Oklahoman playwright named Lynn Riggs—which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein adapted with Viennese-born director Fred Zinnemann (The Day of the Jackal, The Nun’s Story, A Man for All Seasons), who also directed High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953).

This musical lyric unspools a simple and circular melody rejoicing in the promise of a new day sung by a character who’s an American cowboy. He rides alone on the prairie, so he sings as a hymn to himself. He goes by the name Curly (Gordon MacRae), wears a bright red shirt and rides on top of his horse with ease, rhythm and total control as he sings in a low, booming and soulful affirmation: “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day/I’ve got a beautiful feeling/Ev’rything’s going my way.”

It’s a stunning moment in cinema, letting the audience see man in an undaunted musical expression of supreme self-confidence.

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Curly’s accent is as flat as the Midwest’s, as clipped as the mountain states’ and as relaxed as the South’s with the vocabulary of the West and Oklahoma! is centrally about Curly making life go his way. But Oklahoma! is also about a period of time when it felt like the world could go America’s way; the way of individualism, capitalism and a robust, greedy and selfish pursuit of happiness here on earth.

I’ve previously seen Oklahoma!—which screened before Thanksgiving in 35mm at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum of the American West and introduced by the Autry’s assistant curator of Western history Josh Garrett-Davis—on television, DVD and the silver screen and I always find new aspects in its artistry. This time, I noticed that the film, written by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is consciously liberal and decidedly anti-traditionalist. Oklahoma! is liberated about sex and filled with optimism for the future, not nostalgia for the past.

Curly looks eagerly, greedily, toward his future. The handsome cowboy takes no liberties and treats the pretty young lady he desires (Shirley Jones as Laurey in her movie debut) as an equal. Like Gregory Peck in The Big Country, he’s playful with Laurey, not domineering, and he respects her decisions when she makes up her mind, even when he knows she’s wrong. Curly’s accustomed not entitled to attention; when wise and frisky old Aunt Eller (Charlotte Greenwood in an outstanding performance) flirts, he takes it in stride.

But then Curly is an enlightened man. At mid-point in Oklahoma!, Curly notices a picture of a naked woman. He gets closer to inspect it. He gives the picture a good look. He thinks about it, then comments on it. He’s neither put off nor overly interested. He notices but he doesn’t drool or put on airs to impress others and he certainly doesn’t dismiss it. The picture’s another fact to assimilate in modern life and Curly’s curious. He’s neither hyper-masculine nor emasculated. Indeed, Curly doesn’t mind if Laurey sees him express emotion—whether anger or joy—as he knows his own worth.

Knowing himself figures into Curly’s conflict with the story’s villain, Aunt Eller’s hired hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger, Doctor Zhivago), competing for Laurey’s attention. MacRae’s performance is underappreciated, especially in their smokehouse scenes as Curly mocks Jud’s misanthropy, displaying subtle humor, bravery and intelligence as he measures Jud’s character in one of Oklahoma!‘s most disturbing scenes as unwashed Jud, who lives in a moist underbelly of primitivism, essentially chooses to come out for the death premise (this turns out to be a flaw in Curly’s character as he lets Laurey ride with Jud knowing that Jud’s a threat).

Laurey, too, is an enlightened woman. Though the character is incessantly critiqued for being sweet and virginal—and Oklahoma! is undeservedly criticized for being too sentimental (it is serious and dark, not all sugary and light, though it is emphatically romantic)—her solo starts as an ode to the “healthy and strong woman”, in contrast to a shallow, hyper-feminine second-hander. Laurey sings her complicated profession and lament to a gathering of women in whom she finds support and discovers in herself the skill for leadership. It’s a bright, frilly, high-pitched scene and song immersed in femininity and femaleness but it is not frivolous. For example, a short-haired brunette who stands out for being too rambunctious as the ladies dress for the auction is also pointedly the first female to console Laurey when she’s hurt and it’s the brunette that steps up to remind Laurey of her inner strength.

Shared values aside, Laurey is no less liberated when she is alone, bathing naked in the outdoors with neither shame nor exhibitionism.

Even steady, salty old Aunt Eller is a modern, rational woman who both scorns tradition and speaks plainly about men, passion and sexuality. Freethinking in Oklahoma! leads to sensual, romantic love, territorial unity and free trade; a more perfect union. When Laurey and Curly go side by side, their chemistry is electric. A butterfly encircles the couple. Set during the Industrial Revolution, Zinnemann captures Americanism in their fresh faces: the innocence, confidence and intransigence. With birds, horses and cattle in almost every frame, and drifting clouds and rippling waves representing widening effects of what’s yet to come—amidst incisive and exceptional songs—Oklahoma! implies that sex and love are best aligned and in any case are a vital, natural part of forging a dynamic, new land.

MacRae’s strong and solitary Curly, from romancing Laurey on that first beautiful morning to bidding on her picnic basket against Jud Fry, symbolizes the West’s new, freethinking man. Curly is the first one to initiate a handshake after a plea for peace, trade and understanding between cowboys and farmers.

I noticed more realism mixed with romanticism this time, too. Oklahoma! could easily have ended after a happily ever after scene. Zinnemann, aided in tone by an extended foreshadowing dream sequence in a dance choreographed by Agnes De Mille, goes deeper, letting Aunt Eller deliver a stern if tender cautionary warning to Laurey that life means taking the good with the bad, rising above adversity and accentuating the best in life.

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No analysis of Oklahoma! would be whole without addressing its deft and delightful comic relief, Will (the perfectly cast and talented Gene Nelson) and Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, acing the role) who bundle and bind the story’s themes into one immensely rewarding subplot involving Eddie Albert (Roman Holiday) as a foreigner. This pair cashes in on the Rodgers and Hammerstein humor after Will returns to Oklahoma from Kansas City to eventually corral Ado Annie, who keeps melting with men because she “cain’t” say no (except when Will goes to kiss her). Annie, daughter of a strict, dismissive farmer (James Whitmore), protests and explains, especially as her Will discovers pornography, ragtime and the “tellyphone” in a remarkable dance at the depot.

As with corn husker closeups, Zinnemann frames that scene and enhances it, symbolizing the Oklahoma territory’s change from old to new, as Aunt Eller’s horse-drawn carriage pulls up on the right of the screen as the camera pans to the left and a steam engine-powered train pulls into the station with a tail-wagging dog scampering to welcome the pioneer to the industrial revolution. The section finishes as Will casually hops onto his horse from the departing locomotive, retaining the cowboy’s way as the carousel of progress revolves.

This is Oklahoma! which brilliantly and musically, dramatically—with action-packed scenes, fabulous songs and great performances—renders the tale of a heroic individualist and the young, modern woman he loves, their chosen friends and fellow pioneers and the ties that bind in a rousing, and distinctly American, title song which could have gone on and on and on as far as I am concerned.

If you haven’t seen Oklahoma!, or if you haven’t seen it lately, this musical exists not to recall America’s past greatness as much as it does to showcase the boundless optimism that Americans once held as an ideal vision for the new country’s future.

 

Music Review: Rosanne Cash

Last night, I had the pleasure to meet Rosanne Cash backstage after her Santa Clarita, California, concert. She’s as earnest in person and in performance as she is on her recordings. The show was as unique an experience as I’ve had at a live concert.

I do favor singer/songwriters, such as Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger and Melissa Manchester, so I was looking forward to attending the Rosanne Cash concert, which started on time. Having fallen for her excellent 2014 The River and the Thread (especially the deluxe edition with “Biloxi”, which she did not perform), I expected a relaxed show and it was suitably subdued. Even better, Cash, whose memoirs I reviewed six years ago (read my book review here), is confident and authoritative on stage. Not once did she invite the audience to sing along, though a lady behind me insisted on singing along. Never did Cash encourage hand-clapping, not that it stopped fans from doing so to her rockabilly tunes.

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash, was active and happy to dance to the music, and she was in her own world as she sang songs she wrote and strummed a guitar beside her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. The Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center concert played as if Cash sang for herself.

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The result was a muted sense of detachment from the audience that enhanced the songs’ intimacy and impact. Remembering her life as a girl growing up in Ventura County, visiting the American South or the impetus or motive for each song, she performed a whole original album, her Grammy-winning The River and the Thread, in sequence. The voice is in fine shape and she phrases and times each vocal succinctly, letting the bluegrass/roots songs settle into a musical rhythm that frames more than overpowers the lyric.

“Ev’rybody ’round here moves too fast,” she observes on the wise “Modern Blue”, a song I requested in advance on Twitter (she replied: “you got it”). And everything she did with an accomplished, skilled band slowed the night down to near perfection. Cash took a break and returned with songs from her 2009 album, The List, and Black Cadillac and her many popular country and blues, folk and rock songs and chart hits, including “Seven Year Ache”, which set Cash on her way in 1981 to earning respect in popular American music. Cash’s husband/co-writer/producer and arranger John Leventhal did an impeccable guitar solo during “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.

After crooning “500 Miles” and other tunes, the Carnegie Hall creative partner and Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist-in-residence left the stage. Cash returned to acknowledge her suburban Los Angeles audience during a warm ovation as being “small but mighty”.

Rosanne Cash proved herself last night as a musical-philosophical storyteller in good form. The Tennessee native grumbled about an encore her husband nudged her to do, which worked out great. She talked about kids, her dad and tales of the Delta. But my favorite moment of candor was when she granted herself a triumph as she acknowledged, shared and celebrated that she’d recently recovered the copyright to a song she wrote as a young woman, “Blue Moon with Heartache”, which she then performed. Affirming her property rights was an unguarded and welcome admission which put the whole show in perspective; Rosanne Cash works hard to make it on her merits. The one-night return to her homeland Southern California gave fans a sense of Cash’s composed and honest pride.

Sample and buy The River and the Thread Deluxe edition.

Music Review: Pat Benatar at the Greek

Stepping on stage with the knowing confidence she has exuded throughout her career, Pat Benatar took to the Greek Theatre with ease. She opened with her hit song, “All Fired Up”. This anthem is the ideal initiation to her summer performance of rock, ballads and blues. The tune captures the essence of Benatar’s best work.

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Husband Neil Giraldo’s guitar roared before his wife let loose her vocal power in expressing the buoyantly, defiantly crying optimism which distinguishes this singer and her operatic rock band. Whether in the strong but tender “We Belong”, dramatic “Love is a Battlefield” or The Legend of Billie Jean‘s affirmation “Invincible”, each performed with precision last night at the Greek in her hometown Los Angeles, Benatar’s siren-like bellowing has aged with not a trace of cynicism. Each note, guitar solo and drumbeat fell neatly into each song with minor flaws, bringing her hard but positive catalog to life in the hills of Griffith Park.

Telling tales with humor, profanity and a grasp of what makes a good story, Giraldo and Benatar delivered with stage presence and musicianship every time. This isn’t a greatest hits collection, so they indulged in a selective set list after a nostalgic setup video. With “Hell is for Children” as an emotionally stirring transition point, they gave the enthused audience “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as well as a powerful version of “Promises in the Dark”, “Painted Desert” and a tribute to the late Prince with an acoustic rendition of his “When Doves Cry”. The energy was sustained, though Benatar seemed ready to call it a night when she did, too. Both artists, who were co-billed as Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo with Melissa Etheridge, have a naturally seasoned audience rapport.

That they acknowledge the warped, divisive times fits the tour’s love theme, with Benatar introducing the rollicking and underrated “Let’s Stay Together” off 1988’s brilliant and underrated Wide Awake in Dreamland with a statement dismissing political differences while pleading for unity. A hint of resignation and the sense that answers to deep, serious problems aren’t coming doesn’t mar the band’s underlying, almost prayerful idealism. It is tinged with the rage and anger at injustice that made Pat Benatar an early New Wave sensation in the late 1970s. No one can best this artist and duo for melodic rock that drives its theme that peace and love must be won, fought for and earned. The wink and the shrug with which Pat Benatar and her Neil Giraldo perform are optional.

These two ought to write and record more new music. Their rock concert is a rare and entertaining blend of the light and the serious.